A Review of “On the Beach”

“A Book to read, again; A Terrifying prophecy; A Reason to Act Now[1].” So reads the back cover of Nevil Shute’s masterpiece, On the Beach. The book takes us to what remains of the world following a nuclear holocaust. The people of the Southern hemisphere, particularly those in Australia, have become the sole survivors- temporarily- of the nuclear war that destroyed all life in the Northern hemisphere. Whilst some may consider On the Beach as a nightmarish vision of mankind’s future doom; it seems more likely that is a warning, but one of hope. The hope that comes from the pages of On the Beach comes from this warning, of how we must be as cautious as possible when it comes to warfare. On the Beach is not some mad idea conjured up by a writer of fiction; but it a very possible scenario of life after a nuclear holocaust.

“We thought those who had power, had wisdom.[2]” In 1950s America and other allied countries; atomic energy was this new, exciting and powerful new energy and weapon. It was hailed as the defeater of the Japanese and thus the ender of World War II. Nuclear energy was also seen as an alternative fuel as well. Whilst many people praised it, there were those who advised caution with the new energy. According to the United States Department of State, the limited Test ban Treaty of 1963 came into being after several incidents. In March 1954, two nuclear bombs (one by the U.S. and one by the Soviets) were tested near Japan which caused a huge contamination of both the environment and the inhabitants of the area[3]. This information about radioactive poisoning shocked the public, and so made Shute’s book later on even more alarming. For due to the unwise actions of these two power-hungry nations, the environment and thousands of people and animals became very ill.

Shute was no mad storyteller, for he was educated at Oxford and was a respected man who wrote many other works. Though his story seems too unfathomable to ever happen (why would nations bomb each other continuously with nuclear weapons?), the truth is that it is a realistic probability. Most wars have been made as acts of aggression, having not exhausted diplomatic means to prevent violence. It is very possible in our day that one country can be bombarded by nuclear bombs and in retaliation wreak the same damage on the other- in effect, hurting millions of innocents in the process. The characters of Mr. and Mrs. Holmes, their alcoholic friend Moira Davidson, the American Dwight Towers, and John Osborne are all so normal and realistic that it brings the horror of what eventually will happen to them to life.  Shute draws us into a world where these people living in Australia are left with six months left to live, give or take a few months, and yet all the characters do not run mad or frantic, but slowly keep going through their day-to-day routines.

The finale of On the Beach is rather reminiscent of past historical events involving the end of things. For example, when the Allies had finally surrounded Hitler and his men, the Nazis knew that the end was near, many decided to a) try and survive as long as possible, or b) kill themselves with cyanide tablets or other means of suicide. This is reminiscent of On the Beach for the end describes how Moira and Dwight separated- him going back to Connecticut; she to kill herself with the cyanide tablets. Dwight ‘s character early on tells another character, “It seems kind of rough on the men to separate from their women in the last few days, unless there was some compelling reason in the interest of the Navy;[4]” which foreshadows his own separation from Moira.

In conclusion, Nevil Shute’s warning is that powerful nations must not act precipitously when it comes to warfare and the use of nuclear weapons. His words warn us to calm down the enmity betwixt the United States and the Soviet Union lest the tension snowballs and drags all others down with it. The point Shute was attempting to convey to his reading audience is that the modern world has the awesome responsibility of preventing the new nuclear technology from becoming the annihilator of all life on this planet. Just as George Orwell warned the world of the dangers of totalitarian regimes in his book 1984, so Nevil Shute warned the world of the dangers associated with the use of atomic bombs for warfare. And it is up to those in power to be responsible with the mighty power they possess.

Bibliography:

  1. Shute, Nevil. On the Beach. (Toronto: Random House of Canada Limited, 1983).
  2. Benet, Stephen Vincent. Litany for Dictatorships. 1937. http://www.quotationspage.com/quote/3185.html
  3. United States Department of State. The Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963. http://www.state.gov/t/ac/trt/4797.htm.  Accessed on December 4, 2006.

[1] Shute, Nevil. On the Beach. (Toronto: Random House of Canada Limited. 1983), back cover.

[2] Benet, Stephen Vincent. Litany for Dictatorships. 1937. http://www.quotationspage.com/quote/3185.html

[3] United States Department of State. The Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963. http://www.state.gov/t/ac/trt/4797.htm.  Accessed on December 4, 2006.

[4] Shute, Nevil. On the Beach. (Toronto: Random House of Canada Limited, 1983), 117.

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